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The lane at Old Marshford followed the same route it always had.
Unbothered by the seasons, the grey track kept its line through the wet and gales of winter, the longer summers. Falling leaves in autumn and spring hedges. Still it remained. As steady as the people that used it.
The top end of the lane at Old Marshford. That’s where the cattle truck reversed into Mrs Seviour’s wall. A few flat grey stones fell to the ground. If Kathy Seviour wasn’t at that moment standing in the window, admiring her geraniums as she sometimes did, petalled bowls of purple filling with sun, she wouldn’t have noticed the damage. The driver, though, was a man of more particular senses. Pete Potter felt the nudge and stepped down from the cattle truck to inspect.
“Ah the devil,” he said. “A bad token for sure.”
He hitched up his overalls and lowered onto a knee. The low wall unable to resist his capable hands. Repaired before Mrs Seviour had unlatched the door and shuffled outside, too late to tell Farmer Pete not to worry.
“’Ow many times you passed by without stumpin me wall Pete?” she said, pointing around with a stubby arm, thickened by the spoon and the shovel.
“Ah a fair few,” he said. “Should be sorted new though it don’t feel right someow.”
Mrs Seviour watched the farmer shake the familiar truck into some kind of gear and head down to Causebury Farm.
The long summer started to breathe and the purple nights pulled in, closing the days with great splashes of colour. Somerset’s small bright skies setting on rough green hills.
The Wiltshire border is the same, up on the hill.
Beneath the colour grazed a herd of Herefords, their red hides moving like a gentle and deliberate stream. They never took much notice of the farmer singing and laying out the feed. Their white heads lifting now and then to see the work of busy dark limbs. He took great enjoyment in his herd, knowing each one by their movements. Some way of identifying them much deeper than any name. An extension of his own body, really. In the same way the poplar trees, duty bound to protect the hill from wind, were a part of the grass beneath them and the summer rain that poured along. Farmer Pete would stop to look up now and then, squinting to the sun, the back of his hand on his forehead, listening to the cows swing their great tongues in the trough, whistling to them, pleased to see their black noses catch acorns of light from the water. He would then carry on contently, his head down, working each day like summer turns to autumn. And it wasn’t long before the cracked ground was softened by September’s rain, allowing the mist a soft run to roll up and hide the land.
The hill was an island in the mornings, sat there above the white mist with those long poplar feathers reaching up. And upon it new calves saw their first light, skipping with no real purpose apart from finding their mother’s milk.
Farmer Pete moved his cattle and their new calves down the lane to Begger’s Knoll. Mr Francis was an estate agent from London, or that’s how Pete understood it at least. And there was no use in him “troublin to cut the grass when cows’ll do the job.” The cattle ate well with their calves each morning at Begger’s Knoll, grazing peacefully, expecting by midday the farmer’s familiar singing.
Sometimes I would be up early enough to see him, that green coated figure, appearing on the edges of the wet haze like morning dew. And he was more like the land, than he was me or you. In the way his heavy legs stepped so lightly on that hill. In the way his thick wrists took only what was ripe. And most of all, in the way those sharp eyes possessed a kind of humour only steady ground brings to a man. Now I know I’ve said all this, and painted quite the picture of my neighbour, although we were only that for a short time, but the truth is that, even with the business of the farm, if you could call it business, Farmer Pete could still not shake the issue of Mrs Seviour’s broken wall from his head, “a bad token for sure.”
There’s an Autumn wind that sharpens the blue sky here so that it’s clear way up past airplane’s that leave white trails.
On those clear days, of the year I’m explaining anyway, villagers could look over from the shop at Old Marshford and see Pete Potter moving his red cattle back into the barn. And if they could’ve seen him as close as me, at my window, they would’ve seen him with his pencil, legs over the gate by early afternoon, drawing the allotment in particular detail. By October he’d cleared out a space behind the house and tilled the soil with a shovel and a hoe, among other things. I watched him from the staircase window from time to time. Glad to be inside as Autumn reared up to leave. Hearing him say “Thicker than thick, for sure.” Pulling away brambles from around an apple tree.
This apple tree sat right in the middle of the farmer’s new allotment. Dark brown soil making a circle around it. On one side tepees of Hazel were tied at the top with twine. On the grass a roll of chicken wire sat ready. And up above nothing much seemed to be coming of Winter although the mist found its time to leave and the days shortened.
I woke because of the noise. What time was it? The diesel engine warming up. A kind of thud before it. I looked down to see Pete sitting in the cab, the light on, holding his leg. Nothing on the hill apart from the feather silhouettes of the poplar trees. The van door clicked shut. He drove himself to the hospital and was given an ice pack for his swollen knee. I know this because Mrs Seviour had told me, after catching Pete on his way home on the lane.
“For two hours he waited with the cold pack fastened to this leg,” she said. “When the doctor finally saw him, she had to heat Pete’s leg back up and peel the ice pack off.”
“They intimated to hold it on,” Pete had said. “So course I did.”
Pete was placed on an NHS list to receive surgery on his knee, and given gel to soothe his now frostbitten leg.
“Your knee is an island unto itself, Mr Potter,” the doctor had said. “How you’ve lasted this long, in what must have been constant pain, is frankly astonishing.”
“Ah, for certain,” Pete said. “The knee’s a bugger and rotten to hell, but I can’t s’much as sit still without dying some doctor.”
Pete limped out of the hospital, peeled back the yellow parking ticket from the cattle truck’s windscreen, and drove back to Causebury Farm past Mrs Seviour’s, which is how I got to know the reason for that early morning noise.
Winter is louder than the other seasons. The smell of it stronger, too. Perhaps that’s because the light fades out, leaving space for everything else to fill a man’s senses. Up on the hill and across the land the trees had been stripped. Their jagged limbs more like monsters than trees, old skeletons on the dark land.
Underfoot, the boggy grass at the east of the hill gulped loudly at every step, leaving a few drips falling from Pete’s boots. His singing was deeper in the low orange sun, but most days the wind and rain covered everything. I would hear him on those orange days, opening the steel barn door and smiling and breathing in “sweeter than sweet.”
One morning two cars pulled up in the barn courtyard. A man in a suit got out of both. The two men came together and shook hands. It was obvious, from my window there, that they did not know each other before that day. I knew that Pete was up in the barn, looking after his cattle, so I went down to see who the men were.
“Hi there,” the man said. “Mr Potter?” he darted a long and pointed finger towards me.
“No sorry,” I said. “But maybe I can help?”
“Is Mr Potter around?” he asked. The other man stood like an undertaker.
“Andy,” I said, reaching out a hand.
“Trevor,” he said. “Trevor Coleridge.”
“Steve Groak,” the other man said.
“We’re here from DEFRA doing a bit of admin really,” Trevor Coleridge said. Fiddling with the lanyard around his neck, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
“Mr Potter in today?”
“I reckon somewhere,” I said. “You can usually hear im round here.”
Both men’s black shoes were already specked with mud. Mr Groak was writing in a notepad. “Andy..?”
“Andy Hunter,” I said.
“Mr Hunter do you know Mr Francis at Begger’s Knowle?”
Mr Groak’s face was chinless, folding neatly into his neck as if he’d ironed and tucked it in himself.
“Sorry, no,” I said. “He’s pretty elusive to be fair, I think he works in London most of the time. Why?”
He looked over my shoulder. “You must be the Mr Potter we’re looking for.”
Farmer Pete limped heavily into the forecourt.
He pinched the tip of his cap. “Tis I, ow be on boys?”
“Pete Potter?” Mr Groak said.
“Mr Potter we’ve been down to Begger’s Knowle where we know your cattle were earlier this year. Probably best we take this conversation inside. Can we go inside?”
Pete nodded his head gently and turned towards his house.
The top end of the lane at Old Marshford. That’s where the white Luton van passed Mrs Seviour’s wall. If Kathy Seviour wasn’t at that moment standing in the window, remembering her purple geraniums as she sometimes did in the winter, closed green stems for now, she wouldn’t have noticed the uncommon site of an unknown vehicle on the lane. She didn’t recognise the driver or his passengers.
The Luton van pulled into the barn courtyard.
Mr Groak passed a folder to the driver. The driver read the paper and then looked up at the barn. The two passengers got out and followed the driver’s pointing arms. They were dressed head to toe in clear plastic.
“Vet here yet?” the driver said.
“Five minutes apparently,” Mr Groak said. “Some young local one so be prepared. Everything else is set up well for you, though. The livestock is all in the barn so you can get on sedating them as soon as he gets here.”
“Right,” the driver said. “We’ve got three bolt guns so shouldn’t be too painful.”
“Well that’s good news,” Mr Groak said. “Should be home for dinner.”
The driver zipped up his plastic jumpsuit. One of the passengers walked back into the courtyard. “These cows all look fine to me.”
Mr Groak scowled and his eyes squinted, folding over black raisin eyes. “He hasn’t reported any moving from holding to holding in years,” Mr Groak said. “These cattle are a risk to us all.”
“I thought all the holding to holding movement stuff was online these days?”
Mr Groak shrugged his wide shoulders “bloke’s a dinosaur,” and walked back to his car.
It was dark by now. The men marched through the barn with headtorches and syringes, ignoring the young vet’s insistence to work slowly and carefully. They stabbed the needles into the restless cattle and let them fall to the ground. The vet stood helplessly at the perimeter of the barn. The herd started to ebb and flow in slow tides, growing restless. The men worked quickly. As the cattle started to resist, confusedly, the sharp air of the bolt gun cut through their calling. Their calling for him. Low and desperate, punctuated by the quick and abusive shots. The vet escaped to the courtyard and removed his hat, hearing the cattle shouting up into the barn. The sweet smell now cleansed. The men worked forcefully, killing every one like the other.
Somewhere in the house Pete was sitting at a table. I couldn’t tell which one, from my window. The lights were off. And as I searched the windows I could hear the men shunting forklift blades into each red carcass in the barn, lifting them from the sea of bodies, all lying grotesquely upon each other. And up on the hill another team of men scattered railway sleepers on the soft ground. The forklifts ripped up the ground and dumped the bodies, under the stripped poplars, upon the hill where the calves had tasted their first milk and the cows had given birth. Up on the hill, where the men lit the fire and the acrid smoke filled the cold air for a night and a day.
The wind blew through the poplar trees, swirling and singing for weeks and weeks. Through the wind came the rain, pouring and pouring for weeks and weeks. The boggy grass was silently drowned. The barn mourned sourly. And up on the hill a tiredness seemed to hold the land. I wondered if those trees saw much use in the spring that year. Did the grass need to grow back or the sun have much interest in new life? Without the farmer and his Herefords the hill seemed something else completely.
And it was true that spring came in spite of my worries. The rush of cold wind was gone and the first sprouts came out to meet the warmer air. Farmer Pete remerged and watched them grow. The allotment circle with the apple tree.
And finally down to Mrs Seviour’s with savoy cabbages and potatoes. A few bunches of kale.
“Not at all,” he said. “Shall have a few more as e gets warmer. Go some way to say sorry for the wall.” Mrs Seviour said thank you, at the top end of the lane, and for the first time in as long as she’d been in Old Marshford, she noticed the farmer’s pale blue eyes had faded to something more like autumn mist. And the humour men get from steady ground had gone.